Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obama's First 100 Days: Restoring the Good Name of the U.S.

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

The media's obsession with grading Barack Obama's first 100 days in office amuses me. Sure, in calmer times, maybe it was reasonable to look at a new administration after a little more than three months and try and figure out what kind of presidency the country was in for. But even George W. Bush waited until August 2001 to severely limit when federal money could be used to fund stem cell research, planting his flag in the ground as a leader who would try and impose his religious beliefs (and lack of respect for science) on the nation.

But given the situation Obama inherited when he took over the Oval Office in January, the 100 days figure is particularly silly. After all, in 100 days you can't make a human being from scratch, play a baseball season, or even choose an American Idol. But after 100 days, the media wants to know if Obama has been able to clean up the laundry list of ills left to him by Bush. It's not a short menu, either: an unnecessary and damaging war that was launched with no plan for a resolution, a second war that was headed in the wrong direction thanks to Bush's obsession with the unnecessary war, the potential of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the Taliban, an economy hemorrhaging jobs and creating challenging conditions for a big chunk of Americans, a soaring home foreclosure rate, a plummeting stock market (at the time of Obama's inauguration), a severely damaged financial system that was in danger of bringing the world's economy down, a melting planet, an energy policy (or lack thereof) that threatened the country's economy and national security, and a health-care system that allows tens of millions of Americans to go through life with no medical care, just to hit some highlights.

Oh, and Obama is supposed to solve these problems despite the fact that the Republicans, who have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster legislation, are intellectually bankrupt, with no new ideas to offer beyond "less taxes and less regulation," and who have crafted an identity solely based on opposing whatever Obama says or tries to do. (At this point, with the Republicans acting like bratty children, I am waiting for Obama to make use of the playground anti-mimicking trick of employing reverse psychology and announcing that he is in favor of the Republicans disagreeing with his policies, so that the knee-jerk GOP members will support him, just to be contrary.) And, to be fair, it's not like the members of Congress in his own party have always been supportive, often putting their parochial interests in front of Obama's national agenda (the set of ideas that led the American people to vote him into office by a landslide).

So the task awaiting Obama was massive. And yet, there is a rush to decide how he's doing after 100 days. He doesn't even have all his cabinet members in place yet, after all (partially his fault, but partially thanks to the petty delaying tactics of the Republicans).

Personally, while I can't say I have agreed with each and every decision Obama has made since taking office, on the whole, I think what he has accomplished in the first 100 days is remarkable. He ushered a nearly $1 trillion stimulus plan into law in record time, reversed a flood of reactionary Bush executive orders (including on stem cell research), and, in his budget, made clear that he wants priorities such as health care, green energy and education to be addressed. But despite my support for his work, I refuse on principal to give him a grade. It's just not fair. Donnie Walsh gets two years to revive the Knicks, but the president only gets 100 days to fix the country? (Granted, after Isiah Thomas gets done with an organization, it is a miracle if it still exists at all.)

But there is one area in which Obama has made such a dent in an awful Bush legacy, I will make an exception to my rule and hand out a grade. And it wasn't even an item on my list of debacles Obama inherited from Bush. But, in a way, it encompasses all of these items.

For all of the failures, embarrassments and acts of destruction of the Bush administration, in some ways, none was worse than the damage he did to the American identity. Bush showed utter disregard for the constitution and completely belittled the idea that America stands for justice and due process. And his arrogant attitude toward the world was counterproductive, leaving the United States isolated at a time when it most needed help. Between the invasion of Iraq, the torturing of prisoners, the illegal wiretapping, the outing of a CIA agent, the politicization of the Justice Department, the appointing of incompetent cronies to government positions (like the immortal "Brownie"), the castration of agencies meant to serve the public in an all-encompassing protection of business interests (like the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission testifying to Congress that she opposed funding for more inspectors after it was discovered that toys made in China contained lead paint), and the handing out of government money to businesses in which administration officials had interests (sometimes via no-bid contracts), the Bush administration had tarnished everything that was great about the United States of America. He took a country we could be proud of, a country that strove to meet a higher standard, and tossed us into the gutter. Looking at the pictures from Abu Ghraib or reading the accounts from Guantanamo, it was hard to believe that we were looking at the actions of the U.S. government. That's not the America I was taught about in school.

(As an aside, I am not an end-justifies-the-mean guy, so even if Bush's repugnant policies made us safer, I would object. But we didn't even get that benefit. As we've learned again and again from the men responsible for interrogations, torture doesn't work, and Bush's policies, from the Iraq invasion -- with its human and financial costs -- to Guantanamo, created more terrorists and national security risks than they prevented.)

In his first 100 days, Obama has taken decisive action to show the world that the great side of America, the America that stands for justice and due process, the America that respects the rights of individuals, and the America that has served as an example and destination for people around the world, is trying to come back. Obama's appointments chose competence and expertise over cronyism. He reversed Bush's torture policies and released the completely bogus memos written to justify them. He announced early on that he would close Guantanamo and that we would withdraw from Iraq. He changed the tone of how we speak to our friends and enemies, showing that keeping an open mind is not the same as being weak. He instituted policies that sought to add transparency to government. And, most of all, he showed that he was a smart and competent leader, something that has been absent for the previous eight years.

In the subject area of acting to restore pride in America, I am willing to give Obama a grade: A.

Granted, there have been missteps. He was too slow to embrace the idea of prosecuting those who justified and approved of torture, for example. But when you consider the depths to which Bush had plunged the country in this regard, and the short period of time (the much ballyhooed 100 days) Obama has had to reverse the course of the nation, his achievement in this area has been quick, decisive and productive. He has proven that hope is more than just a poster. Or, as a friend of mine put it, it's nice to know a grown-up is back in charge.

Hopefully when the true final examination comes around in November 2012, and Obama's presidency is evaluated after ample time has gone by for his policies and decisions to be analyzed, he will fare as well. For the sake of the country, I hope he does. But for now, he's off to a pretty good start, even if it is only 100 days.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New Sitcoms Reflect the Philosophies of Their Networks: "Parks and Recreation" and "Surviving Suburbia"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I've been hard on NBC in the past, but it's certainly justified. The network, once known for its massively successful Must See TV lineup on Thursday nights, is now essentially out of ideas. In the last few years it has repeatedly rolled out new shows, many of which were cheap copies of existing hits, that seemed tone deaf to what viewers wanted. NBC's complete lack of success (frequently locked out of the weekly list of Top 20 shows) led to a decision to turn over its entire 10 p.m. weekday time slot to a talk show.

Meanwhile, the philosophy at ABC couldn't be more different. The network that put the mind-bending "Lost" on the air has dedicated a huge portion of its fiction slate to shows that are genuinely ambitious, putting twists on traditional formulas.

When viewed through the prisms of the networks' recent track records, their new sitcoms, "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Surviving Suburbia" (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern), make total sense.

One of NBC's biggest sins of late has been its penchant for airing ill-conceived knock-offs of existing shows. ABC had a hit with "Dancing With the Stars," and Fox scored solid summertime numbers with "So You Think You Can Dance," so NBC decided it would be a good idea to toss out "Superstars of Dance," which drew deservingly low numbers. "The Bachelor" has been a warhorse for ABC, spawning a sea of similar shows, so NBC offered up the creepy and offensive (and poorly rated) "Momma's Boys." Just when you thought the network couldn't get any sillier, it debuted a carbon copy of "Hell's Kitchen" starring that show's mentor, which promptly tanked so badly that the network pulled the plug weeks into its run. It feels like NBC has given up trying to develop new shows, instead mechanically ripping off hits in a misguided effort to achieve similar success. In fact, NBC ended up with all three spots on my spring list of shows I was least looking forward to seeing, with two of the entries scoring very low ratings ("Kings" and "Chopping Block"), and a third not living up to expectations ("Celebrity Apprentice").

The one bright spot for NBC has been that on the most important television night of the week (for advertisers, and thus for the networks), Thursday, its lineup of single-camera sitcoms, while not highly rated in total viewers, attracts good numbers in the all-important 18-49 demographic. But NBC couldn't even get Thursdays completely right, kicking off this season by replacing "Scrubs" with the spectacularly horrible "Kath & Kim," which was rejected by audiences and critics alike.

With "Kath & Kim"'s season mercifully over, NBC filled its spot with "Parks and Recreation," which is another example of the network simply playing copy and paste, this time with it's own successful formula. Created by "The Office" executive producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, and serving as the vehicle for Amy Poehler's transition from "Saturday Night Live" to a prime-time comedy, "Parks and Recreation" is, to be diplomatic, heavily influenced by "The Office." Shot in the same single-camera, faux-documentary style, and working in the same area of low-key laughs based on discomfort rather than broad set-up-punch guffaws, watching "Parks" feels like watching "The Office." (I'm talking about general atmosphere, not quality.) Which means that, by definition, "Parks" will never be the innovative eye-opener "The Office" was (and often still is).

Judged on its own, "Parks" is a mildly amusing half hour with some potential to get better. The comedy is centered around Leslie Knope (Poehler), an ambitious but clueless deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie is Michael Scott, only dumber and less likable, mainly because where Steve Carell brings a warmth to his dim-bulb boss, and his character often gets to redeem himself in the end, Leslie is far colder, and, at least based on the first two episodes, she always loses.

Leslie leads monthly informational forums for the town's citizens, which she thinks is an honor, but we find out from her right-wing, anti-government boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), that she is the only one willing to do them. After a local nurse, Ann Perkins (the funny Rashida Jones), complains that her boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt) was injured in the giant pit at an abandoned construction site near her house, Leslie gets roped into agreeing to visit the site and impulsively promises to turn it into a park. (She then tells the camera, "This could be my Hoover Dam.") It won't be easy, since Ron later tells the camera that he doesn't believe in government, so he doesn't support the park idea.

She also isn't going to get much help from her co-worker Tom Haveford (Aziz Ansari, who isn't working far from his funny lazy intern on "Scrubs"). Leslie thinks Tom is "Libyan," but he tells the camera he is a "redneck" from South Carolina. Tom is more concerned with graft (we overhear him on a phone call explaining how to get around his gift limit of $25, and in the second episode he tells a series of subcontractors that if they get the park gig, he expects a "favor" in return) and getting laid (he hits on Ann at the meeting when he hears her boyfriend is incapacitated). Leslie and Ann also doesn't get much help from Andy, who is a lazy, selfish, using, free-loading, wannabe musician. Ann is oblivious to Andy's horribleness, which is hard to swallow, even in the heightened world of "Parks." (After watching Jones be so funny and vibrant opposite Paul Rudd in "I Love You Man," it's hard to accept her as such a doormat.) The only person who marginally wants to help Leslie (and knows how impossible her task is) is city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). Leslie says things are complicated between them because they slept together, but in his interview, Mark forgets at first that it even happened, later realizing that they had indeed hooked up once five years earlier.

"Parks" may be a knock-off of "The Office," but the problem is not that fact, per se, but the ways in which Leslie is a far less funny, likable or interesting as a lead character than Michael is. When Michael brags, you see the insecurity below the surface, and it makes you feel bad for him. When Leslie says, "It's a great time to be a woman in politics, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi," it's more off-putting than one of Michael's searching rants on why he is good at something. When Leslie calls Tom a "Libyan," she comes off as an ignorant bigot. When Michael makes a racially insensitive remark, you know he's trying to do the right thing, even though he usually doesn't know how. I think it's important that despite Michael's failings, his branch makes money, whereas Leslie seems to suffer no such success.

In the capable hands of Daniels and Schur, and with a gifted cast with reliable comedy actors like Jones and Ansari, "Parks" certainly has its moments. And, moving forward, I'm sure the stories will tighten up a bit and the characters will find their footing. But so long as Leslie is the bland and distant lead, the sitcom will never be able to reach the level of its Thursday night neighbors "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock."

As I watched the debut of "Surviving Suburbia," for the first few minutes I was amazed. It's not that I thought it was terrible or great, but rather I couldn't believe that I was watching a 1980s-style, mutlicamera, traditional, family-based sitcom on network television, and that it was on ABC of all places. The episode starts with Steve and Anne Patterson (sitcom veterans Bob Saget and Cynthia Stevenson) sitting on a couch watching television (ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," of course) with their adorable pre-tween daughter Courtney (G. Hannelius, and no, I have no idea why she doesn't have a full first name). When Anne notes how beautiful the dancers are, Courtney says to Steve, "You should dance with mommy," to which Steve replies, "You should go to bed." You just don't see this kind of sitcom on television anymore. Even the way Saget is uneasily perched on the couch, more posing than sitting in a way any suburban dad would, felt completely out of step with the more film-like, single-camera sitcoms that make up the bulk of the networks' comedies.

But then I realized that it actually made a lot of sense that ABC would be the network to air Surviving Suburbia." After all, it is the only show like it on the air right now. By offering up something so traditional, ABC is bucking current trends.

I still don't know if "Suburbia" works. It is funny at times. And on the surface, it is really old-fashioned. Steve's aversion to doing favors for his neighbors puts him in the pantheon of cranky fathers that runs from Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson. The main plot of the pilot, in which Steve accidentally burns down his neighbor's house after he reluctantly agrees to take care of his fish, and then lies about his role in the fire, resulting in Steve being lauded as a hero, was just wacky enough to fit into any traditional sitcom. And fellow veteran Jere Burns plays the quintessential somewhat wacky neighbor.

But there is a bit more going on in "Suburbia" than is visible on the absolutely conventional surface. I really like the little bit of an edge that Saget gives to his suburban dad (he is more interesting than the bland patriarch he played on "Full House"). While operating in seemingly family-friendly territory, the show isn't afraid to stray to more adult material, like when Steve takes advantage of his hero status to get sexual favors from Anne.

I can't say that "Surviving Suburbia" is one of my new favorites, and I'm not sure the laughs are as plentiful as I would like, but I do admire the effort, as well as ABC's commitment to cover new ground (even if it means finding space for forgotten old ground). While "Parks and Recreation" has accomplished writers and a strong cast, ultimately, it feels hollow, treading on ground that has been covered earlier (and better) by the show that immediately follows it on Thursday nights. The two sitcoms reflect the networks that air them. It will be up to "Surviving Suburbia" to be worthy of ABC's programming guts, and "Parks and Recreation" to prosper despite being a product of NBC's lack of vision.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The "Teabag" Protests Smack of Neo-McCarthyism

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

Today's "teabag" protests would be funny, if they didn't make me think of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and what he might have accomplished if Fox News existed during his time.

On February 9, 1950, McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, said to the Women's Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, "While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205."

McCarthy never released the names on the list, and there is no evidence that he had any real knowledge of any actual Communist Party members or spies in the State Department. But that didn't stop McCarthy from going on a four-year rampage, destroying people's careers and lives based on lies, innuendo and guilt by association. By the time Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch asked McCarthy during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations on March 11, 1954, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?", the country had started to figure out that McCarthy was nothing but a charlatan, using fear and lies for political gain.

In light of more than 50 years of lessons on the dangers of McCarthyism, you would think that such a tactic could never work again. That may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure: If the tools employed by McCarthy fail today, it won't be for a lack of trying by the Republicans. Because as we sit here, in April 2009, an increasingly desperate Republican party has resorted to the worst abuses of the fear mongering of the 1950s to try and regain power.

Last Thursday's statement by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, that he had a list of 17 members of Congress who are socialists was not the beginning or end of the GOP efforts at launching an age of neo-McCarthyism, but the parallel is too direct to ignore. Bachus said, "Some of the men and women I work with in Congress are socialists." When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the one person in the U.S. Congress who identifies himself as a "democratic socialist," demanded that Bachus reveal those on his magic list of 17 socialists, Bachus declined to name any names beside Sanders. Sound familiar?

(As an aside, Sanders's use of "socialist" to describe himself is, I would argue, more to make a point than an accurate portrayal of his political positions. He caucuses peacefully with the Democrats, and, as Politico put it, Sanders's "vision of a socialist safety net is more Stockholm than Stalingrad.")

The socialism charges started during the campaign, with John McCain invoking the word in reference to then-candidate Barack Obama. The nadir came when nut-job extraordinaire Michele Bachmann, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota, said on Hardball: "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or Anti-America" (You can watch it for yourself here). It was like she was channeling McCarthy.

But with Obama's victory in November, rather than dissipating, the socialism charges kept right on humming along.

Which brings us to the ridiculous "teabag" protests today. I have no trouble using the word "ridiculous" because we have a group of people invoking one of the most famous revolts against taxation, the Boston Tea Party, a 1773 action against England taxing tea without the colonists having voted on it, to protest an administration that has ... cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, and supported restoring tax rates for the wealthiest Americans back to the levels of the Clinton administration, which were significantly lower than the tax rates for the wealthy under Ronald Reagan (not exactly known as a socialist). And, of course, there is no taxation without representation here. The Republicans are represented. They just lost, overwhelmingly, in the last election. There is a big difference.

Let's be clear about something: It seems almost silly I should have to write this, but President Obama is not a socialist, at least not by any excepted definition of the term. To be incredibly simple about it, Dictionary.com defines "socialism" as "a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole." The president's policies may not show the deference to business and the financial industry that the Bush administration employed (and the complete abdication of regulation, too), much to the dismay of conservatives, but it is ludicrous to say that his policies rise to the level of advocating for "vesting control" of the economy "in the community as a whole."

When Bachus and the rest use the word "socialism" to describe President Obama (or any Democrat in Congress), they are either ignorant or lying. They are certainly not acting in good faith or in the best interests of the country. They are quite simply playing political games.

What's worse, the protests are being portrayed as "grassroots" affairs by the right, even though they are being launched by three conservative groups (funded by wealthy Republican donors): Former Rep. Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, dontGO and Americans for Prosperity.

Like McCarthy's nonexistent list of Communists in the State Department (and Bachus's equally fictional list of socialists in Congress), the "teabag" protests are a sham.

Given poll numbers that show that Americans overwhelmingly support President Obama and his tax proposals (according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, 56 percent of respondents said they supported President Obama's handling of the economy, and 74 percent supported higher taxes on the wealthy), the whole "teabag" protest would, taken alone, be nothing more than entertainment, another item on an increasingly long list of moves by the Republicans that show they are bankrupt of ideas, offering only more tax cuts and less regulation as a solution to everything. But one factor threatens to make the protests (and the whole bogus movement to brand President Obama a socialist) actually dangerous: Fox News.

Last night, Keith Olbermann showed a montage of Fox News clips promoting the "teabag" protests. If McCarthy had the portal of Fox News to spew his hate and lies into American living rooms, who knows how the 1950s would have unfolded. One would hope that the nation still would have come to its senses, recognizing McCarthy as the know-nothing fear monger that he was, but we can't say that for sure.

Which is why I am a bit concerned about the neo-McCarthyism embraced by Fox News and the Spencer Bachuses and Michele Bachmanns of the world. We live in a time with a lot of problems, from war abroad to a difficult economy at home. Fear is easy enough to generate in an already scared populace, but it is even easier to stoke in an age of 24-hour news cycles and propaganda machines masquerading as news networks (before my friends on the right try to throw MSNBC in my face, suffice it to say that Fox News regularly read White House talking points on the air when Bush was president, something that Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and even uber-fan Chris Matthews could not be accused of doing). I am concerned that the neo-McCarthyism advanced by the GOP will prey on a country that is, unfortunately, vulnerable, and somehow take on an air of respectability.

And that is why I decided to write about the bogus "teabag" protests. Because as silly as they are, they are also dangerous. We know what the Republicans got away with during the Bush administration, and we have seen the toxic waste that former administration officials like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have upchucked onto the airwaves since President Obama was sworn in.

So don't just laugh at the idiots out there today throwing tea to protest nonexistent tax increases and holding signs accusing President Obama of being a socialist. Be sure to speak up and let anyone you talk to know that what these protests signify is a dangerous attempt to establish a new era of McCarthyism. The actions of the protesters might be silly, but there is nothing insignificant about what the people pulling their strings are trying to do.

It's time for a 21st century version of Joseph Welch to stand up to the neo-McCarthyites, hopefully before they do the kind of damage McCarthy did to innocent people in the 1950s.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Revived "Cupid" Deserves a Better Fate than the One Met by the Original

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Considering that "Cupid" (ABC, Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) earned the top spot in my spring list of new shows I was most looking forward to seeing, the expectation bar was set pretty high as I sat down to watch the pilot.

The list of pluses I saw with the program before actually watching it was extensive. I'm a fan of Rob Thomas (the creator of "Veronica Mars"), who is behind the resurrection of his show, which originally aired on a very different ABC 10-and-a-half years ago. One of the leads, Sarah Paulson, was also a star of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a program to which, many of you know, I have a seriously unhealthy devotion, and the actor playing the title character, Bobby Cannavale, has shown that he can steal every scene he's in, whether it's in a little indie film like "The Station Agent" or a broad sitcom like "Will & Grace." "Cupid" is a one-hour dramedy that examines what makes people fall in love, the number one topic I explore in my own screenplays, and one that I am a sucker for in movies. And it airs on ABC, which is quickly becoming the broadcast network dedicated to high-quality, offbeat shows.

Throw in the great backstory of this being a remake of a failed, one-season, critically acclaimed program, and I had to wonder, How would "Cupid" ever live up to my expectations?

Well, it did. In fact my description of ABC's programming philosophy could just as easily be applied to the show: a high-quality, offbeat offering. And you can throw in funny, smart and, most of all, entertaining, even if it is a bit on the schmaltzy side.

Cinematic in approach, and making use of New York as a character (with on-location shoots more reminiscent of a movie than a television series), "Cupid" is the story of a man (Cannavale) who says that he is the Roman god Cupid, and that he has been banished to earth where he has to remain until he manages to wrangle mortals into 100 happy and head-over-heels-in-love couples. After changing the lights under the New Year's Eve ball to spell out the name of the lost love of an Irish singer-songwriter, Cupid finds himself in a New York psychiatric hospital (in the only slip-up of the hour, the hospital is a gorgeous building, with clean, inviting rooms and views that would make captains of industry jealous, probably the 180-degree opposite of what a New York City psych center would look like).

Practical relationship expert and successful author Dr. Claire McCrae (Paulson) is called on to treat Cupid, who successfully wins over everyone at the hospital, except Claire. (He leaves her office before their first meeting, only for Claire to find him in one of the wards leading the patients in a raucous rendering of "All You Need Is Love," a quick and effective declaration of his reason for being.) After months in the center, Cupid finally reveals his name to be Trevor Pierce, and the doctors agree to release him. Of course, he is just playing the game so he can go out and get started matching up his 100 couples. In a "Usual Suspects" moment, we later see that a giant sign behind the doctors deciding his fate has as the last words of its two lines "tremor" and "pierced."

It is up to Claire to monitor Trevor's treatment, and she invites him to attend her group therapy sessions dedicated to helping people find a mate. Not surprisingly, Trevor takes over the meeting, and the central conflict of the show is set up: Trevor believes in a grand vision of love, including love at first sight, and love that is filled with passion and heat. Claire, on the other hand, is more practical, blurting out while arguing with Trevor that “love is what’s left after the heat and the passion die.” Where he is bold, she plays it safe.

Trevor lives in a room over a night club that could only appear in a television show, but which has the effect of making you wish you could go to a place like it. Huge and yet open and inviting, and filled with beautiful patrons, the bar features such quirky features as a mariachi karaoke night (think a couple dueting on "Love Is a Battlefield," done in the traditional Mexican style). Trevor tends bar to pay his bills and uses the club to help with his matchmaking efforts, something that seems to end up helping bring customers to the club, vindicating the faith of the rough-around-the-edges but good-hearted owner, Felix (Rick Gomez). Less enamored is Felix's waitress, Lita (Camille Guaty), who thinks Felix shouldn't be taking in "strays." Felix's deadpan reaction to Trevor explaining that he is "Cupid" (Lita overhears him talking to Claire and reports him to Felix) is priceless.

Cannavale and Paulson both do a pitch-perfect job with their characters, with Cannavale infusing Trevor with enthusiasm and joy without spilling over into silliness, while Paulson plays Claire as pragmatic and logical without making her a downer. You can see Claire's internal battle, balancing what she believes with what she feels. She reveals her hand when she tells Trevor that he should stop helping the Irish singer-songwriter find the American girl he met in a Dublin bar for only 20 minutes, but for whom he has flown to New York to seek out, by arguing that she is trying to keep him from getting hurt. The wounded nature of Claire's character keeps her pragmatism and cool from becoming off-putting. And together, Cannavale and Paulson have the easy chemistry of a great romantic comedy team. They're like the Mulder and Scully of love, the believer and the skeptic. Their give-and-take is entertaining and engaging.

But while there is undeniable sexual tension between Claire and Trevor, the episodes of "Cupid" focus on a couple that Trevor is trying to get together. In the pilot, Trevor engages one of Claire's clients, Madelyn (Margeurite Moreau, who I remembered from the short-lived "Life as We Know It"), a button-down New York Post reporter, to do a story on Dave (Sean Maguire of "The Class"), the Irish singer-songwriter, and his search for his lost love. Before long, Madelyn and Dave are kissing on a Coney Island Ferris wheel, moving Claire to tell Trevor, "Chalk one up for mortal think." But when Dave's lost love shows up at a concert arranged by Trevor, all thanks to Madelyn's article, Dave leaves with her, breaking Madelyn's heart, but causing Trevor to take the upper hand in his battle with Claire. Of course, Trevor learns that his love isn't the woman he imagined, leading him back into Madelyn's arms, with Trevor's help, but only after he calls Claire for assistance. Trevor redeems himself after Dave is deported back to Ireland, showing Madelyn that she should go after him (as they're talking, he has quietly led her to a travel agency with a window display pushing trips to Ireland).

I really liked how Dave and Madelyn's story pushed along Trevor and Claire's arc, keeping me interested in all of the characters. And the episode was filled with clever lines (the pilot was written by Thomas himself), many as part of Trevor and Claire's verbal sparring. In one of their first sessions, Trevor tells Claire that Mount Olympus is a "non-stop, clothing-optional party. You have no idea,” with Claire snapping back, “I have a vague idea. You just described the Playboy mansion." When Claire tells Trevor not to intervene in Dave's love life, declaring, "Fifteen years of training has prepared me to help these people," Trevor responds, "And being the Roman god of love has prepared me for what? Being a judge on 'Blind Date'?" It's funny, even if the reference is painfully dated. Maybe it was a leftover from the original show (which starred Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, and which, sadly, I've never seen). I really liked when Trevor and Claire battled it out after he mentioned having followers. Claire responds, "You do not have followers.” After Trevor indignantly asks, “Oh really? Then how come there is a Temple of Eros in Chelsea,” Claire answers, “They sell trashy lingerie,” to which an undaunted Trevor snaps back, “It’s one of the sacraments."

In the end, "Cupid" is clever and fun, even as it is a bit sudsy. I have seen far too many programs like this one, with no obvious commercial hook to rope in huge audiences, die a critically acclaimed but audience-starved early death, especially on ABC ("Life on Mars" springs to mind). I really hope that is not the fate of "Cupid." Again. Despite my weighty expectations, I was exceptionally impressed with the show, top to bottom, and I hope it finds an audience. It would be a shame for Thomas to lose yet another quality show before its time.